Archives for July 2004

2004 Seattle To Portland Bicycle Ride


Yesterday, July 17, 2004, I set out to ride my bicycle the 206 miles from Seattle to Portland in a single day. I had done the trip twice before, both times in 2 days. Both times, the second day seemed far more grueling than the first.  From multiple riders, I had heard that one day was really the way to go. I had put in the training miles, steadily increasing my speed and endurance, and was all set to give it a go this year. 

Much to my surprise, I found myself looking at the various group-dynamics along the ride with a LIOSian slant. At the start line, there were riders all over the parking-lot at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium. They were stretching, checking their bikes, riding around in circles to warm up, and engaged in idle chatter. This would be a group of people from all over the area, tentatively exploring the early “forming” stages. At this point, other than those who already arrived together in smaller groups, everybody shared little more than the commonality of seeking to peddle their way South for the next 10-20 hours in either one or two days. Up until the time when the gate would open to let people loose in groups of about 200, the “task” part of the adventure had not yet begun.

Alas, when the gate did open, I found myself in the second wave, crossing the start line at 4:59:00 AM.  It had officially begun. The sun was just barely coming up in the distance, there was slight cloud cover, and the air was a near perfect temperature for beginning what would become a long and arduous endeavor. I found myself experiencing a high level of nervous excitement at the start of the ride.  As we left the parking lot en-mass, starting speeds were only about 15 miles an hour. There were too many people, we were too close together, and there were too many turns for anybody to travel much faster. At this point, the group of maybe 40 cyclist within my immediate proximity were all quite unified in the task leaving the stadium, traveling down the roadways, and of wanting to gain greater separation for safety.  At the same time, even beyond the 40 within my immediate vision, there were still others both ahead and behind seeking to do the same thing. As we traveled, my sense was that we were all one big undifferentiated ego mass.

Yet while the initial speeds were moderate, the effort to travel at those speeds was quite minimal.  The need for vigilance was high in order to travel safely, but the mass of people created a force of wind and suction that allowed us to coast at those speeds, even up-hill. Surrounding me on all sides were the sounds of gears shifting, chains pulling, wind blowing, and tires rolling over the roadway. The cacophony of stimuli bombarding all of my senses was so overpowering and rhythmic as to make the effort of peddling almost unnoticeable. Instead, my focus was on the wheels in front of me, the pot-holes below me, and the other cyclist to both of my sides — those on my right fading back as I passed them, and those on my left surging forward as they passed me. The effort was more about concentration and focus than physical exertion, and it was easy to enter a hyper-vigilant state that was also somehow quite soothing, as if in deep meditation, broken only by the repeated calls of “On your left!”

After about the first 5 miles, the roadways opened up a bit, space between cyclists increased, and there was a greater sense of mobility within the group. Speeds had increased to about 20 MPH, and it was possible to break away from the pack. While traveling with a group took less energy, it also demanded a greater degree of conformity and predictability. It was not possible to speed up or slow down at will and still remain part of the group, which had now taken on a character of its own, even without words among the members. To travel at my own pace would require leaving this group – differentiating – and traveling at my own pace.

So as I moved towards the left and began increasing my speed to 22 MPH, I began passing greater numbers of people. At that point, two things started to happen. The first was that there were others in the group who also wanted to go faster, and as I began to surge forward, they would drop in behind me to ride in my wake. It was as if there were a latent urge to go faster by others within the group, and it did not become expressed until such time as somebody took the lead by pedaling harder. My goal to surge forward, to differentiate myself as a cyclist, was met with joining behaviors of others who wanted to follow my lead.

The second thing was that as I began to separate from the pack in which I was traveling, I saw how large the hoard of cyclist really was. I knew that at most, there were 300 people in front of me, though from my vantage point, I could not see the front of the line which seemed to go on forever. Likewise, there would be upwards of 7,000 riders behind me, and I had no interest in seeing that end of the continuum. The line seemed to alternate between clusters of about 30, separated by about 500 yards of sparse riders, followed by another group of cyclists. I suspect that were you to start at the head of the line and work your way backwards, that pattern would repeat for miles. 

Within my place on that line, I found myself simultaneously wanting to separate from the group I was in, and also wanting to accelerate to join the next group ahead. On the whole, there was really very little difference between one group and the next, and yet the urge I felt to leave one and enter the next one was quite profound. I had an inner desire to separate, to travel on my own as an individual cyclist, while at the same time to enjoy the benefits that membership within a larger group provided. Traveling on my own meant the greatest personal freedom, but also the greatest amount of effort. Traveling in a group took far less energy, but required greater conformity and concern for the safety of those around me. It was not a problem to be solved, as much as it was a paradox to be navigated.

So this pattern continued for the first 11 miles, until reaching the Seward Park mini-stop, where probably half of the pack pulled over, and the other half (myself included) continued on. With the hoards now thinned out, it was safer to increase speed, and I found myself in the midst of a group rolling at a comfortable 25 MPH. On my own, I would not likely travel much faster than 20, but I could easily assimilate with this group by watching my spacing and riding close behind in the wake of those in front of me. Having “found my pack,” the reality that teams are capable of doing more than individuals became blatantly obvious. 

I was now traveling within a semi-established group of 5 which had formed as a byproduct of traveling at a common speed. Storming was non-existent, as the norms were based purely on speed. Anybody not meeting that norm would be dropped, while anybody who could match that speed was free to join. At intervals of about one minute, the lead cyclist would move to the side and allow the pace-line to pass, at which point the former lead would join the rear to benefit from the draft of those up front.  Traveling this way saves about 20% of the effort required to ride solo, but it is not without risks.  

The distance between the tip of my front wheel, and the tail of the rear wheel in front of me was from 6 to 18 inches.  At 25 MPH, we are traveling over 36 feet every second, which means reaction times need to be less than 0.1 seconds to maintain safety.  It’s analogous to two automobiles driving 50 MPH with less than 3 between their bumpers.  

Yet somehow cyclists who are complete strangers manage to establish enough trust to ride this way for miles at a time because it allows the group to remain strong without over-burdening any individual cyclist.  This particular group lasted for the next 12 miles, until reaching the first stop which was the REI in Kent. By that point, I had managed to go 23.5 miles in a little over an hour, and it was only 6:10 in the morning.  It was only the beginning, of course, but at that rate, I was well on my way to making the entire journey in a day.

However, as soon as we entered the REI parking lot, the “group” disbanded as we all sought to tend to our individual needs for carbohydrates, water, and bladder relief. It was the fastest I had ever made it to the first stop, and also the first time that there were no lines for the bathrooms. After a 22 minute stop, I was on my way again, except that the “group” I had formerly traveled with was nowhere to be seen. There were others re-entering the course at the same time as me, though most of them were traveling at 15 MPH, while I was cruising solo at 20. 

As much as I would have liked to have caught up to a group traveling at 25 MPH, there was no way that I could sustain that speed on my own, and so no way that I could ever catch one going that fast. At the same time, some of those 15 MPH riders were just waiting for somebody my speed to pass by, and before I knew it I had a trail of 5 in my wake. Fortunately, riding in someone’s wake helps the followers, while doing no harm to the lead. Then, just as those 5 had latched onto me when I passed, there was a 10-person pace-line gaining from the rear. The line passed me, one rider after the other in rapid succession until the end of the line, at which point I pushed forward to catch their wake, leaving behind the 5 who were my former entourage. The point here is that it is much harder to find an appropriate group to join, and far more likely that it will find you.  The key to being able to join a new group when it comes along is a willingness to change speeds.

So for the entirety of the ride from Seattle to Portland, there were roughly 7,000 riders spread out over many miles, coming together into groups of various sizes and for various lengths of time and distance. Groups would travel together, having formed on the basis of speed, both helping and being helped by each other’s presence, only to disband and form again in a new configuration. On the one hand, each of these groups may have been mere groups-of-convenience, yet there was also a level of camaraderie among strangers which was somehow established quickly and with very little negotiation.

I continued to enter and exit these groups for about the first 52 miles, until I reached Spanaway, Washington. At that point, while I still felt fine, I noticed that I did not have to pee nearly as much as I should have. It was my first sign that perhaps I was not drinking enough, just as the temperatures were beginning to rise through the high 70’s. My cumulative average speed was still 18.8 MPH, including slowing down for hills. I only needed to maintain 17 to be able to complete the course in a day. I made it a point to drink more on the next segment, and was merrily on my way again.

By the time I reached Tenino, at 85 miles into the trip, I was starting to have trouble. The temperatures had climbed into the 80’s, the sun was beating down brightly onto the pavement, and I was unable to drink enough to meet my body’s needs. Fortunately, I still had an appetite, and crammed down a banana, two brownies, a peach, a yogurt, 3 rice-crispy treats, a hand of grapes, and a power-bar before heading out again. Truly, one of the greatest things about cycling is that I get to eat, and eat, and eat. In a matter of minutes, I can consume enough calories to send a diabetic into a coma, and if I’m lucky that will be enough to get me to the next stop. Food, however, was not the problem – water was, and I was not drinking enough.

By the time I made it to Centralia, Washington, just past the 100 mile mark, I was showing signs of stress. The temperatures had reached somewhere into the 90’s, and my stomach was not doing well. I needed to eat, but could not bring myself to eat anything at all. I knew I had expended vast amounts of energy, and I should have been famished. Instead, in what I knew was scorching heat, I was getting the chills. Recognizing the symptoms of heat exhaustion, I sat in the shade and decided not to go anywhere until I managed to drink 3 quarts of water and started peeing again. As much as I wanted to hit the road, I knew I had to tend to basic self-care, lest my body collapse. As if I needed the reminder, there were EMT’s loading another rider into an ambulance for heat stroke. My body just wanted to puke and to go to sleep. My mind knew better, and began flushing my system with water. I was showing all the signs of over-heating, and the two hours it took to re-hydrate were essential to my survival.  I had focused too much on the task of getting to Portland, and not enough on maintaining my body to get me there.

After the two-hour delay, my legs were rested, and I was anxious to get rolling again.  Unfortunately, having let that much time slip by, most of the riders who would be traveling at my pace were already well ahead of me.  That meant that it was less likely that I would find another group traveling at my speed.  However, I managed to travel at 22 on my own, until I was indeed approached by another pace-line going 24.  In some ways, it was like stepping onto a moving sidewalk — accelerate to match the prevailing speed, then enjoy the ride.

The next stop was at mile 120 — Winlock, Washington — home of the world’s largest Egg.  By this point (3:00 PM), many of the other riders were stopping for the day, and those going all the way to Portland were long gone.  I was considering calling it quits myself, except for a strange turn of events.  There was another woman there who was also planning to go all the way to Portland, except that she was having a mild asthma attack.  She managed to ask if I had an inhaler, which I did not.  Unfortunately, Winlock is one of the smaller stops without any first aid or amenities to speak of.  However, I remembered pursed lip breathing from my training as an EMT, which I suggested to her.  It seemed to help, and she said that her head began to clear up when she did that.  At a minimum, she said she would not be going on, and would call her folks for a ride home.  However, since she was not going to Portland, she gave me her bus-ticket from Portland back to Seattle.

So now all I had to do was make it another 80 miles in 6 hours, so that I could make it to Portland in time for the last bus back, which left at 9pm.  In theory, it was quite plausible that I could make it, except that I was still trying to re-establish equilibrium after having dehydrated back in Centralia.  My legs were fine, and I was still able to travel at 18 MPH or better on my own.  The problem was that my stomach was still not happy, and I was going to need to put in a lot more fuel to complete the ride.

I continued to press on, though at this point I was leading far more groups than I was able to join and follow.  I was slowing down, and there were others for whom I was now the strongest cyclist around.  They latched onto my wake just when I most wanted to find a faster wake that I could join.  The irony of a "wake" being both the vacuum of air behind a moving cyclist, as well as what takes place after a funeral was not lost on me at this point.

When I finally reached the 150 mile mark in Lexington, Washington, it was about 7:00pm.  That was the last major food stop, and when I got there they were closing down for the night.  The volunteers there went into the truck and got me a sandwich and some grapes, then basically closed shop.  Earlier in the trip, grapes were the most delicious thing I could put into my mouth — sweet, bite-sized, and wet.  I sat down to eat them now, and they were absolutely vile.  I tried some of the PB&J sandwich, but I could not eat that either.  Not only was it gross, but I could not produce the saliva to eat it.  In both cases, I knew there was nothing wrong with the food.  It was me — I was dehydrated again, only this time my body was resisting far more than it did 50 miles ago.

At that point, I knew there was no way that I could re-hydrate and perform adequate self care, while also making my way the last 50 miles to Portland.  I had started this ride in excellent shape, and should have been quite capable of reaching Portland in a day.  However, I had gone too far outside of the maintenance-envelope to recover without significant physical penalties.  Although I was heavily task-focused and having a great time, I had neglected an aspect of self care to the point that my level of functioning was beginning to suffer.  I might be able to push on still further, but I knew that the costs would only increase exponentially.

As much as I had wanted to achieve my goal of reaching Portland, it was time to quit.  I called home for a rescue, then traveled another 5 miles to a more convenient pick-up point in Kelso, Washington.  I thought long and hard about making that call — partly because it seemed like quitting, partly because I did not like the need to be rescued, and partly because it meant that I had failed to achieve my goal.

Fortunately, in the 2 hours it took for my ride to get to Kelso, I had a bit of time to do some re-framing.  Portland was really just a point on the map, and if I really wanted to get there, I could have stayed at a hotel for the night and finished the next 50 miles in less than 3 hours.  However, my real goal was not Portland — it was to do my very best.  

  • I rode over 1,800 miles as part of my training.
  • I made a decision based on personal self-care, 
    rather than to sacrifice my health or safety for an external goal.
  • I rode the fastest 100 miles in my life — reaching Centralia in 5:09:38, 
    with an average speed of 18.9 MPH
  • I rode farther that day (150 miles to Kelso) than I had ever done in my life.
  • I was still able to walk without stiffness or soreness, even the next day.
  • I completed the S.T.K. (Seattle to Kelso), and lived to tell about it.

Without a doubt, I performed at my personal best.  That’s more than enough to hold my head high about.  And next year?  Well, I’m going to drink so much water that I may float my way into Portland.